In my last post I mentioned the first major artifact in the long story of the Christian Reformed Church’s Psalter Hymnals, leading up to the one the URC uses today and the one it hopes to produce in the future. That document is the “Report on the Hymn Question” submitted by the first Psalter Hymnal Committee to the 1930 synod of the CRC.
While the “Report on the Hymn Question” contains the first formal justification and discussion of the reasons for a Psalter Hymnal, it was not the first step in the journey towards a hybrid psalm- and hymn-book. That first step began with an overture from Classis Grand Rapids East in 1928.
Before 1928, as the foreword to the 1934 Psalter Hymnal notes, the Christian Reformed Church sang “practically nothing but Psalms in public worship.” This was an easy tradition to justify as long as CRC congregations worshiped in Dutch and sang from Dutch psalters. As churches (and especially young church members) began to transition to worship in the English language, however, the matter became stickier. Hymns began to be used “in religious gatherings outside of public worship,” and pressure mounted to incorporate more hymns into worship than the dozen or so standard offerings included in the back of the Dutch psalters.
Up until that time the Church Order of the Christian Reformed Church, handed down from the Synod of Dort itself, contained this instruction regarding congregational singing:
In the Churches only the 150 Psalms of David, the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, the Twelve Articles of Faith, the Songs of Mary, Zacharias, and Simeon, the Morning and Evening Hymns, and the Hymn of Prayer before the Sermon, shall be sung. (Article 69)
In 1928 came the first definitive call for action, as the CRC’s synod faced overtures from three of its fifteen classes arguing for the inclusion of hymns, two classes and a consistory arguing against the inclusion of hymns, and four classes requesting the appointment of a committee to study the matter further. Among these overtures, two stand out as the longest and most thorough: the one from Classis Grand Rapids East in favor of hymns, and the one from Classis Zeeland against hymns. I’ve transcribed the text of the GR East overture and done a little bit of the translation work here. The Zeeland overture is among the additional communications posted here.
I encourage you to read through Classis Grand Rapids East’s overture yourself and examine their reasoning. If I had to summarize their arguments, it would be as follows: Hymns should be incorporated into worship because (1) the singing of hymns is not forbidden in Scripture, and (2) there is a need for hymns in the churches. The classis’s additional points are qualifiers: i.e. that hymns must be doctrinally sound and must not dominate the church’s worship.
While I’m not here to argue against using hymns in worship, some of the particulars of Classis Grand Rapids East’s reasoning trouble me.
First, the classis all but ignores the regulative principle of worship (what is not commanded is forbidden), which we’ve discussed elsewhere on URC Psalmody. They argue for the inclusion of hymns by calling into question any biblical command for psalms or hymns in worship. In regard to Paul’s exhortations to the Ephesians and Colossians to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,” they claim to have “no definite certainty whether these passages refer to our singing in public worship.” (Yet they later seem quite sure that I Timothy 3:16 quotes a “well-known hymn of praise” in the early church.) “Nor is the singing of spiritual songs or hymns expressly forbidden in God’s Word,” the classis adds, falling back on the normative principle of worship for justification (what is not forbidden is permissible).
This alarms me. If we are to sing hymns in worship, we should possess at least a fair amount of certainty that God has commanded their use. The classis seems to lack that conviction, yet continues their case for hymn-singing unconcerned.
Second, the classis argues for hymn-singing by attempting to point out insufficiencies in the psalms: that they fail to reflect the “clearer revelation” and “fulfillment” of the New Testament. Unfortunately, the Trinity is a poorly chosen example. Indeed, the Book of Psalms contains some of the clearest indications of the Trinity in the entire Old Testament, if not all of Scripture. Think of Psalm 2: “You are my Son; today I have begotten you.” Or Psalm 104: “When you send forth your Spirit, they are created.” Or Psalm 110: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” Indeed, the fact that so many of the psalms “employ the past tense, the tense of fulfillment,” seems to prove the lasting value of the Psalter rather than an inherent need for New Testament-inspired hymns. The psalms come with the light of fulfillment built in!
Again, valid arguments can be made for the inclusion of uninspired hymns alongside psalms in worship, songs that reflect the message of the whole Bible. But we must not base those arguments for hymns on failings in the psalms. If we confess that God gave us the psalms to use in worship, we cannot also claim that they are insufficient for the church’s needs. We cannot affirm the Holy Spirit’s inspiration of the Old Testament while also dismissing it as somehow sub-Christian.
Finally, the classis defends the need for hymns by mentioning their “directness” and “heart-appeal” that speak to the “younger generation,” whereas understanding the psalms requires “a rather extensive exegesis.” (Don’t these terms call to mind more recent arguments for praise choruses?) This is not only a ridiculous misrepresentation—which is more direct and heartfelt, the sappy “I Surrender All” or the raw emotions of Psalm 130?—but it also utterly neglects the role of the psalms as a teaching tool. In fact, many psalms address the “younger generation” directly: “Come, O children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD” (Psalm 34:11); “We will not hide them from our children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the LORD, and his might, and the wonders that he has done” (Psalm 78:4). Hymns are constrained by time, place, and cultural context; the psalms are for every generation.
Readers, what do you think? Are there particular areas in which you agree or disagree with Classis Grand Rapids East’s case for hymn-singing? Do you think this makes an adequate case for hymn-singing in the churches? How would you structure an argument for a Psalter Hymnal?
Next time, Lord willing, we’ll delve into the overture against hymn-singing from Classis Zeeland.